Preacher’s daugh­ters

The four sis­ters are the sur­viv­ing off­spring of the Rev. S.L. Davis and Wil­lie Davis.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael Barnes

The high-spir­ited Davis sis­ters re­mem­ber ‘East Austin’s pas­tor’

More than 100 years ago, the fu­ture Rev. Si­las Leonard “S.L.” Davis worked as a farm la­borer south­east of Austin. One day, this son of for­mer slaves an­nounced that he could not work on Sun­days.

“God’s call­ing me,” S.L. told his boss. “I have to go to church.”

So the boss fired him when he did not show up.

“Then he re­hired him each time,” says his daugh­ter Vessie Davis Tutt, 92, with a smile, “un­til he gave up.”

Good thing, too. Her fa­ther went on to study at Guadalupe Col­lege, a Bap­tist school founded for African-Amer­i­cans in Seguin in 1884, and was or­dained as a min­is­ter in 1927. Af­ter a time in San An­to­nio, S.L. moved his fam­ily to East Austin, where, in 1937, he over­saw the David Chapel Mis­sion­ary Bap­tist Church.

On Oct. 23, 1939, he led sev­eral fam­i­lies from David Chapel to found Mt. Cal­vary Mis­sion­ary Bap­tist Church on Wash­ing­ton Av­enue. He served as Mt. Cal­vary’s pas­tor for 49 years and be­came one of the most re­spected lead­ers in Austin, a stern taskmas­ter at home and in public, but one with an in­ti­mate, ab­so­lute knowl­edge of the Bi­ble.

He died March 30, 1988, 11 days af­ter his 100th birth­day. For many, he was “East Austin’s Pas­tor.”

Four sis­ters re­mem­ber

Mt. Cal­vary, these days led by S.L.’s grand­son the Rev. L.K. Jones, is a brick struc­ture with a sim­ple, cen­tral white steeple, lo­cated at what is now 2111 S.L. Davis Ave.

S.L. and his wife, Wil­lie (al­ter­nately Wil­lia) Cora Thomp­son Davis, were both born in the St. John (al­ter­nately John’s) Colony near Dale in Caldwell County. They reared 11 chil­dren.

By one count, they had more than 100 grand­chil­dren, great-grand­chil­dren, great-great-grand­chil­dren and great-great-great-grand­chil­dren.

On a windy day, their four sur­viv­ing chil­dren — along with Vessie, there are Scot­tie Lee Davis Ivory, 88, Tere­sia Davis Lewis, 85, and Bar­bara Davis Dot­son, 80 — gath­ered in a room at Vessie’s farm­house in Cedar Creek, just over the low green hills from the St. John Colony. Vessie has turned the front par­lor into a sort of shrine to her fa­ther, with crisp pho­to­graphs, en­larged news­pa­per and mag­a­zine ar­ti­cles, mu­si­cal scores, im­mac­u­late mem­o­ra­bilia — in­clud­ing S.L.’s ticket to the 1936 Texas Cen­ten­nial in Dal­las, which Vessie found in a trunk — and sam­ples of S.L.’s el­e­gant hand­writ­ing.

The sis­ters’ memories are thickly lay­ered, and not al­ways pleas­ant. In the face of ev­ery­thing, how­ever, the preacher’s high-spir­ited off­spring stuck to­gether. They even kept a sa­cred pact dur­ing their youth not to snitch on one an­other.

“When one got a whip­pin’, all of us got a whip­pin’,” Tere­sia laughed. “Fa­ther would ask, ‘Who did this?’ We wouldn’t tell. We were loyal. True to each other. He then went down the line. We’d be yelling and yelling. When he left, we’d break out laugh­ing.”

The close­ness among the sis­ters has not waned.

“Don’t try to buddy with the Davis girls,” the word went out in their East Austin neigh­bor­hood, Vessie re­calls from their days liv­ing on East 14th Street as well as East 12th Street. “They are friends of their own. They don’t need any­more.”

Their fa­ther

In Vessie’s front par­lor, an early pic­ture of S.L. Davis hangs in a brown frame. A burly young man, he is dressed in his Sunday best — tight-fit­ting suit, thin tie, striped socks, blocky shoes. His big hands are clasped to­gether as if in prayer, or at least in firm res­o­lu­tion.

His eyes fo­cus di­rectly on the cam­era. Clearly, S.L. was a man of his own mind.

“He was one of the great­est doc­tri­nal teach­ers of his day,” the Rev. Raphael Smith of the Mt. Olive Bap­tist Church said at the time of Davis’ death. “He had the charisma, but his forte was that he was one of the few preach­ers who was rooted and grounded in the doc­trine of the faith. You have a lot of present-day min­is­ters who are try­ing to swoon and sway you with plat­i­tudes, but he stayed strictly as a bib­li­cal teacher.”

“I don’t care if you were black or white or what­ever race you be­long to, they called him up to ask, ‘What about this thing in the Bi­ble?’” Vessie says. “He’d know.”

In 1950, the Rev. Davis su­per­vised con­struc­tion, by two of his sons, of the church’s cur­rent brick build­ing.

“He also was known as the ‘12th Street Pas­tor,’” said Scot­tie Lee, re­fer­ring to the string of bars, clubs, eater­ies and other black-owned busi­nesses along that East Austin thor­ough­fare. “He’d walk into any of those joints, and they re­spected him. If you had a bottle, you bet­ter put it on the floor. Clip­per was his horse, a chest­nut with a di­a­mond on its fore­head. I’d go to the clubs and see him from a dis­tance on the horse. You should see me duck­ing. He never saw me. Or he saw me and he didn’t rec­og­nize me.”

But the pas­tor’s power reached far be­yond the back pews of his church or the clubs on 12th Street. Texas Dis­trict Judge Ralph Yar­bor­ough tried mis­de­meanor cases in the Rev. Davis’ home, at times des­ig­nat­ing S.L. an un­of­fi­cial pa­role of­fi­cer.

“The judge knew he could hold those peo­ple morally re­spon­si­ble for their con­duct,” S.L.’s late son Floyd Davis told this news­pa­per on his fa­ther’s death.

When the Texas Leg­is­la­ture de­clared June­teenth a statewide hol­i­day, S.L. per­formed the in­vo­ca­tion at the Capi­tol cer­e­mony.

“When he went down the street, each man would tip his hat. ‘Rev. Davis,’ they all said,” Vessie re­calls. “They’d also say, ‘I want him to do my ser­vice!’ When he died, you’d see cars, cars, cars lined up like he was the pres­i­dent of the United States.”

Dur­ing his later years, S.L. never lost faith in turn­ing 100.

His daugh­ter Scot­tie Lee: “When he got to be 98 years old, he said, ‘I’m 98, and I’m glad to be here, but I’m not go­ing to ask the Lord to be 100; I’m just go­ing to trust that he’ll let me get to 100 years old, and I’ll be sat­is­fied.’”

Their mother

That same par­lor por­trait from the early 20th century shows Wil­lie Davis wear­ing a light un­struc­tured dress, lighter stock­ings and low, sen­si­ble shoes. Her hair is pulled back around her strik­ingly oval fea­tures.

Un­like S.L., she looks into the dis­tance be­yond the cam­era as if greatly fa­tigued, or at least res­o­lute in her de­ter­mi­na­tion to avoid eye con­tact with the lens. A tod­dler sits in her lap and nuz­zles against her breast.

That tod­dler grew up to be the mother of long­time Travis County Com­mis­sioner Ron Davis.

Like her hus­band, Wil­lie clearly was a per­son of her own mind.

Yet her du­ties were split be­tween her hus­band and her chil­dren — in­clud­ing a son who grew up to be among the first black fire cap­tains in Texas — and their chil­dren.

“Mom was like a mother hen,” Scot­tie Lee says. “She was go­ing to take care of her chil­dren and not let any­body mis­treat her chil­dren.”

At the same time, Wil­lie catered to S.L.’s ev­ery need.

“She was the kind of wife who ironed his un­der­wear.” Tere­sia says. “She’d pack his suit­case a month ahead of any trip.”

“Dad used to preach in the morn­ing,” Vessie says. “Af­ter the morn­ing ser­vice, she’d wash his clothes, hang them up for the wind to dry, and iron that suit so he could preach that night.”

Wil­lie seems to have been the nur­turer in the fam­ily, not the dis­ci­plinar­ian. That task she del­e­gated to S.L.

“My mother was al­ways great,” Tere­sia says. “But we had to walk the chalk line or she’d say, ‘I’ll tell your Daddy on you.’”

The fam­ily scraped by on lit­tle money, and it was Wil­lie’s job to make it work. She con­structed the chil­dren’s clothes from flour sacks. She could make a fine meal out of neck bones and pota­toes and al­ways kept a gar­den out for the greens that ac­com­pa­nied al­most ev­ery meal.

“She could feed us off $1.50,” Bar­bara says. “Or $2 for din­ner. And that’s with 17 of us at home, in­clud­ing grand­chil­dren.”

Mar­ried in 1916, the Davises were mar­ried for 72 years, much of that time liv­ing in East Austin. Wil­lie died at age 98 on April 12, 1996.


Vessie, whose grand­par­ents were the for­mer slaves An­drew and Laura Davis, was born in ru­ral St. John Colony in 1926.

St. John was es­tab­lished in the 1870s by the Rev. John Henry Winn, whose flock mi­grated on foot and by wagon from the ar­eas around Hog Eye and Web­berville in eastern Travis County. For decades, chil­dren there at­tended a coun­try school sup­ported by the church com­mu­nity. The kids were in­te­grated into the Lock­hart sys­tem in 1966.

“My grand­mother was a mid­wife,” Vessie says. “I was the last child she de­liv­ered be­fore she passed.” Vessie hangs a frag­ile apron that was worn by Laura Davis, the freed slave, in her front par­lor as a cher­ished re­minder.

Vessie was Wil­lie and S.L.’s fifth child — “of those that lived.”

She re­mem­bers be­ing a good kid, at least while peo­ple were watch­ing.

“We learned it from the ta­ble,” Vessie says. “Our fa­ther con­trolled us. We had to be home, for in­stance, by a cer­tain time. Even when we were grown women.”

In fact, Vessie’s fa­ther grounded her for eat­ing at a restau­rant with some fe­male friends while her hus­band was serv­ing in Viet­nam. He thought it was un­seemly. At the time, she was about to be­come a grand­mother.

Un­like her par­ents, Vessie mar­ried four times.

“You have a hus­band who fights you, or courts on you, you say good­bye,” she says em­phat­i­cally. “I’m too in­de­pen­dent for that.”

That in­de­pen­dence was not al­ways en­cour­aged by the fam­ily. When Vessie felt sorry for her­self, for in­stance, when her hus­band served overseas in the mil­i­tary, her par­ents’ re­sponse was, “Go home and pray for him.”

Vessie had five chil­dren. Two died. One, Pa­tri­cia Dar­lene Wright, born in Tripoli, Libya, while her fa­ther served there, was mur­dered in Austin on Jan. 21, 1979.

Not un­usual for an African-Amer­i­can woman of the time, she worked for a while as a maid in a white house­hold. The man of the house was dis­abled.

“The boss tried to feed me what her hus­band spit out,” Vessie says. “I walked out.”

In­stead, she at­tended the Madam C.J. Walker School of Cos­me­tol­ogy in Dal­las.

“I was the first black beau­ti­cian to work in the Ed­wards Air Force Base beauty shop,” Vessie says. “I came back here in 1972. My hus­band then was in the mil­i­tary. I started teach­ing food and nu­tri­tion for Texas Agri­cul­tural Ex­ten­sion and re­tired in 1988.”

Her cur­rent hus­band, soft-spo­ken Ezelle Tutt, 86, is a church worker.

“The oth­ers weren’t church work­ers,” Vessie clar­i­fies. “They were fight­ing, drink­ing, act­ing a fool.”

In 1985, the Tutts moved out to a gray house on a hill in Cedar Creek near her birth­place. They are mem­bers of nearby St. John Bap­tist Church, headed by the Rev. H.L. Carter.

“We have a co­he­sive com­mu­nity here,” Vessie says. “On June­teenth, 300 to 500 peo­ple come back. We have pro­grams and talk about our his­tory. We want the peo­ple to re­mem­ber where we came from and why we are here. We are try­ing to fix up the old school now. We love its his­tor­i­cal sta­tus, like a mu­seum that brings all things back to life.”

Scot­tie Lee

The sec­ond-el­dest sur­viv­ing daugh­ter is Scot­tie Lee — Davis child No. 7. Born in Seguin while her fa­ther was in col­lege, she can re­mem­ber fam­ily life be­fore East Austin. The early years here were spent in a one-story board-and-bat­ten house at 1507 E. 14th St.

“I still have the con­tract of sale,” Vessie says. “My fa­ther paid $1,300 for it on Nov. 6, 1939.”

“We had a lotta fun,” Scot­tie Lee says. “We had cows. Had chick­ens. Had hogs. Even in Austin, we had cows be­fore they changed the or­di­nance. We grazed them off East 14th Street on Co­mal at Oak­wood Ceme­tery.”

Like many of her sib­lings, Scot­tie Lee at­tended Camp­bell El­e­men­tary, Keal­ing Ju­nior High and An­der­son Se­nior High School. Some of the Davis chil­dren also went to the Olive Street School, which had served sev­eral func­tions for the East Austin com­mu­nity for decades, in­clud­ing an early home for seg­re­gated An­der­son.

The Davis fam­ily was poor, but the kids didn’t re­ally no­tice it.

“We didn’t have store toys,” Scot­tie Lee says. “We made them. We used the rope from the ice box to make hair for a dog. For Christ­mas, it was a piece of candy, an orange, a cane. We were so happy, we didn’t know what to do. We made a swing out of tire and put the rope up on the garage. For din­ner, we’d take a pos­sum and put it in the ashes


Tere­sia Lewis, 85, from left, Bar­bara Dot­son, 80, Vessie Tutt, 92, and Scot­tie Ivory, 88, sit be­neath a por­trait of their fa­ther, the Rev. S.L. Davis.

This pho­to­graph of the Rev. S.L. Davis con­duct­ing a bap­tism in the Colorado River was fea­tured in a 1938 Life mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle.

A me­mo­rial to the Rev. S.L. Davis is on dis­play at the home of his daugh­ter Vessie Tutt.


A pho­to­graph, fea­tured in a 1938 edi­tion of LIFE mag­a­zine, de­pict­ing the Rev. S.L. Davis con­duct­ing a bap­tism, is seen at the home of his daugh­ter Vessie Tutt on June 11 in Cedar Creek.


This early-20th-century pho­to­graph pro­vides in­sight into the Rev. S.L. Davis and his wife, Wil­lie Davis.

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